Today we come to the third week of advent. Each Sunday of Advent has a different key theme that’s traditionally used by churches around the world. Those are hope, peace, joy, and love. And we’re on the third week of advent, joy week, and so we’re pondering joy today.
And what I would like to focus on this morning is how we discover joy in the midst of adversity. And you’ll notice in your bulletin the sermon title. And this sermon title I want you to hear carefully because we’re going to come back to it again and again in the message. It’s, “Songs of joy and Deliverance.”
So let’s talk about joy. What exactly is joy? And I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to define a feeling, but when you try to define a feeling or emotion it’s sometimes challenging to do that.
Joy – If you are in Microsoft Word which is what I type my messages in and you check the dictionary definition there it says that joy is “great happiness.” If you check Merriam Webster’s online dictionary it will tell you that joy is, “the feeling that’s evoked, the emotion that is evoked by well being, success, good fortune, or the prospect of possessing what one desires.” Or the secondary definition is simply, “happiness.”
So those are the more formal definitions of joy, but they still leave you somewhat lacking, again because joy is an emotion; a feeling. But as hard as it is for us to define feeling, sometimes we can describe them. So when I think of joy I think of these things.
I think of my truck, and driving my truck. It just brings me joy to get behind the wheel of that beautiful thing and drive it around town. This week when it snowed I couldn’t wait to get out and put it in 4-wheel drive and drive through the snow. I just feel joy when I drive it.
I feel joy when I watch my boys on the football field, or playing the drums, or singing and acting on the stage; watching them do the things they love to do. It just brings me joy down deep inside.
I feel joy when Robin and I spend the day together, going out to breakfast, and just hanging out at home with her like I got the chance to do on Tuesday’s snow day. Or the joy it was to spend a couple of days away with her a couple of weeks ago at the Homestead.
I feel joy when the Redskins win a football game.
Joy is when I come home and my little dogs bark and dance around because they are so happy to see me.
That’s joy for me.
And as I pondered that I began to realize that joy for me often is what I feel when I’m with people I love, doing things that I love, and in places that I love- or thinking about those things.
But here’s what I want you to know. You can’t always spend your entire life with people you love, doing things you love, in places that you love, or thinking about things you love. You know sometimes you’re going to be in places that are not like that.
I don’t feel joy when I have to take out the trash. I don’t feel joy the night before the maids come and we’ve got 100 different chores to do to get ready. I don’t feel joy when I’m stuck in traffic or when I have to make a trip to the DMV. I don’t feel joy when I’m in conflict with Robin or the boys or anyone else for that matter. I don’t feel joy at those times. And you know what I’ve never started to feel any sense of joy when I’ve lost somebody that I love, or walked with any of you as you go through that most difficult time.
We’re not always going to live on the mountaintop. Right? You get to live on the mountaintop sometimes – those peak experiences of joy. But sometimes you’re going to live in the valley of the shadow of death. And a lot of times you’re going to be somewhere in between.
And so when we’re in those times of the valley of the shadow of death or somewhere in between, sometimes we begin to miss joy. Sometimes we begin to think, “I’m never going to feel joy again.” We have a yearning for it. You see your soul needs joy. It’s like the vitamins that your body needs. And when you have a vitamin deficiency it has an effect on the rest of your body.
When you have a joy deficiency it’ll have an impact on your soul. And when we miss joy for a period of time we yearn for it. And over a period of time we begin to miss it. And so at those times what begins to happen is we begin to think, “I’m never going to feel it again. I’ll just never ever going to feel joy again. In my marriage, in my life.” And then we begin to despair. Despair is a total lack of hope.
So we need joy. And part of what we need to learn is, how do we find joy when we we’re not on the mountaintop? And that really what I want us to talk about today.
Now it’s interesting just as a side note that when we come to Christmas, that Christmas is a season that cries out joy and if you’re not in one of those seasons where you’re feeling joy, it feels like a terrible taunt. There’s this promise of joy, but you’re not feeling the joy. And so it makes the gulf feel all the greater. People greet you and they say, “Merry Christmas!” But you don’t feel very merry at the moment. Or, “Happy Holidays!” or Santa’s preverbal, “Ho ho ho!” But you’re not feeling it. And sometimes that makes that gap feel even greater.
My goal is for us to think about how we move from that melancholy and how we find joy in the midst of it. And here I want to suggest to you that joy is not something we can conjure up and make happen, it’s a byproduct of doing other things.
So when you’re in those times, those seasons of adversity I’d suggest there are lots of things you can do, but I want to suggest three today based on our faith.
The first one of those is that joy is a byproduct of trying to give other people joy. It’s kind of an interesting way this works. But when you try to bless other people and you try to give them joy you find your own heart is lifted up in the process. We talked about this a lot last week, when I mentioned all the ways that you as a congregation are actively involved in mission and outreach. You give joy to somebody else by offering them something to eat, or a warm coat, a great meal, or any number of other ways that you are at work. But in the process of you giving joy to someone else what happens? You find joy yourself. It’s amazing how that works.
Joy is a byproduct of trying to bring joy to someone else. And it works this way because the Bible teaches us that this was God’s plan for human beings; that we were blessed to be a blessing, we are to love our neighbors as we love ourselves, that we’re to serve other people. And in the process of living into what you were made for you find the joy of the Lord which becomes you’re strength.
I read an article that was written by the head of Psychology of a major university and she was describing the connections between faith and psychology. She said in her practice the things that worked best for her patients were the things she learned in Sunday school. And she said, “One of those was, when I prescribed to my patients who were depressed that they go out and serve someone else and try to bless them, they always came back with their hearts uplifted.”
Joy is the byproduct of trying to give joy to other people.
Number 2. Joy is also the byproduct of a changed perspective on suffering; of seeing suffering differently.
Now let me just mention the Bible is filled with stories about suffering. Some people who’ve never actually read the Bible think that the Bible is this story of this sort of polyanna sweet life that we’re supposed to live if we follow God. And because their lives don’t line up with it they think the Bible doesn’t have anything true to say. Well they’ve never actually read the Bible because the Bible doesn’t say that. The Bible is the story of people who suffered. The foundational story of the Old Testament is a story about a nation who were slaves for 400 years. How in the world could that be a polyanna story? But they were delivered by God.
It’s the story of a Savior who came and was crucified. But he was resurrected by God. It’s the story of apostles who were each put to death for their faith, but recived the inheritance that they proclaimed meeting Christ face to face. I mean these are the stories of the Bible.
And when you go in the Old Testament you find a whole category of literature that has to do with suffering. And in that category we find the book of Job, which talks about the suffering of the innocent. And then we find the book of Lamentations where the prophet Jeremiah walked through the streets of Jerusalem after it was destroyed in 586 BC. And he cries out, “My spirit is broken within me. It’s filled with wormwood and gall,” and he laments; he complains to God about what he’s seeing.
Ecclesiastes is the book about an old man who’s looking over his life and feeling like his whole life was meaningless; without any value at all.
We get to the Psalms and there’s a whole category of Psalms called the Complaint Psalms. If you’ve ever read the Psalms you may be familiar with some of those. And you know what, I’m glad they’re there because that reflects our real life experience. They cry out, “How long O Lord? Will you forget me forever? Don’t you remember that the dead don’t praise you, so you better get on the ball and start delivering me because otherwise I’m going to die?” Or the most familiar of the complaint Psalms was the one Jesus prayed when he hung on the cross, Psalm 22. “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”
Now do you know what scholars call that whole body of literature in the Old Testament that’s dealing with suffering? This is really great. They call it Wisdom Literature. Why would scholars call the literature dealing with suffering wisdom literature? Because wisdom comes from suffering. Wisdom, character, compassion, depth in a human personality all comes from walking through suffering. The greatest works of literature were written by people who were familiar with suffering. You knew that right? The greatest works of art that were ever painted were painted by people who struggled and suffered. The people that you know have the deepest character I guarantee you they aren’t people where everything has gone well in their lives their whole lives. They’re always people who’ve experienced suffering.
And if you meet someone who’s never suffered I guarantee you you’re going to be done with the conversation after about 5 or 10 minutes. And you’re going to find the depth of their character is about this deep, because they’re not acquainted with suffering.
By the way if you’ve never experienced any suffering don’t worry its coming your way. Because that’s life. That’s just how it works. And so until then while you’re trying to deepen your character you spend your time with people who are suffering and you listen to their stories. And so you become acquainted with suffering by being with people who are suffering; by suffering with them, having empathy and compassion. By the way that’s what compassion means – to suffer with someone. And so in that way you begin to grow your character.
So the Christian perspective on suffering is that we accept that is a part of life and when it comes our way we recognize that God is able to use it in our lives in some profound way. That God uses it in us to deepen us, to perfect us and sanctify us. But God also uses it to help us to accomplish His purposes for the world.
So in the book of Hebrews chapter 12 we read, that Jesus, “For the joy set before Him endured the suffering of the cross…” What an interesting idea. For the joy set before Him endured the suffering of the cross. What was the joy set before Him, as He’s being nailed to the cross? Now it’s not that He wanted the cross. Remember He prayed, “Father, take this cup from me. Yet not my will but thine be done.” He was willing to do it but He was willing to do it for the joy set before Him. While He’s being nailed to the cross what is He thinking about? He’s thinking about the fact that God will use His cross as an instrument of salvation and redemption for the world. And that gave Him joy – not happiness – joy in the midst of His suffering.
So we find joy when we change our perspective on our suffering. In the midst of all our suffering and pain and difficulty is always the seed of something great. When you begin to look at suffering, when you begin to look at difficult times in that way it changes how you face that. So even in the midst of it, you may not feel happiness, but you can have the confidence that God can use this. And you give over your suffering to God and you allow God to use it. You’re confident that he will.
And this is why in the New Testament book of wisdom literature, which is the book of James, we come to this passage. James writes, “My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind (listen) consider it nothing but joy because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance, and let endurance have its full effect so that you may be mature and complete lacking in nothing.” (James 1:2-4)
Paul of course says it this way: “all things work together for good for those who love him and are called according to His purpose.” (Romans 8:28)
All of us from time to time go through these difficult times, times where God seems distant or silent. Times when our spiritual lives are dry and the fire of devotion has nearly burned out and there’s no joy. You may even be going through that right now. And here’s the thing. That doesn’t mean God is not present and at work in your life.
And so if that’s you keep doing all the things you have been doing, keep practicing the means of grace. But also speak to God and say, “God even if you’re silent use this time in my life. Use it to make me a better person, a better husband or wife, a better parent. Use it O God in some way so that through this it wouldn’t be for naught but I would become strengthened in my faith during this time.”
And that might be the only thing that gives you joy in the midst of that time in your spiritual life is the confidence that God will do it. And God will. And so you learn to give thanks in all circumstances. And to know that God’s going to be doing something through this and you trust that that will happen. And it brings you a kind of joy in the midst of that.
Lastly joy is a byproduct of trusting God.
Ken Carter writes these words, “Joy is not what we seek but it is a consequence of keeping faith in adversity.”
Now I mentioned at the beginning of this message one of the challenges for us is that when we’re in the middle of adversity we begin to think it’s always going to be this way. You’ve lost your job and you’ve been looking for a job for a year and you begin to believe, “I will never get another job.” You’re in the midst of depression and you know the most frightening thing about being depressed - many of you have experienced it - You begin to think, “What if I always feel this way for the rest of my life? What if I never ever laugh again or I never have joy again?” It’s the thought of that that’s unbearable.
And your marriage. “What if we can never fix this? What if I’m sick and I’m never going to get any better?” All of this is that sense of despair and it begins to kick in in our minds when we’re walking through difficult times. And yet somehow it seems that the clouds part and God breaks in and helps us make it through, even when we don’t think He’s there.
And so what happens with us as Christians is we trust that God works that way. God will always deliver us. That’s the promise of scripture. He’s not going to always make everything all better all the time in the way maybe we wish He would. You know He’s not necessarily going to fix your marriage. If two people are not willing to work on it, it may not survive. He may not even necessarily miraculously heal you of something the doctors have said is incurable. Maybe. Sometimes. But most often, well He heals us in another way.
When I’ve been with people who were dying, His healing came in the resurrection from the dead. When I’ve been with people whose marriages didn’t make it, His healing came years later – 2 or 3 years later – when they never thought there’d be joy again, they found joy once more in their lives.
This is what we trust. This is what we know. This is the conviction of the Christian faith.
Now with this in mind I want to turn to the scripture that we have before us today. Isaiah 12.
Now the prophet Isaiah was writing, was prophesying around 730 BC. And when he was prophesying he was speaking to the two little kingdoms of Israel to the north and Judah to the south. And he is speaking to them at a time when the kingdom of Israel had become apostate – that is they had turned away from God entirely. They were chasing after other gods and practicing both idolatry and injustice. We talked about this a couple of weeks ago.
And Isaiah began to warn them. Starting in Isaiah chapter 1 you can read his warnings. And he said to them, “Listen. If you don’t repent and turn back to God and start doing justice to other people, God is going to withhold His hand of protection from you and the great empires of the east are going to sweep into this land and they will destroy you.”
But the people refused to repent. And in 722 BC the Assyrian empire swept with their troops across the Fertile Crescent and utterly obliterated the northern kingdom.
Isaiah began to prophecy to the southern kingdom of Judah in Jerusalem. And he said to them, “What you saw happen to your sisters and brothers in Israel will happen to you if you don’t repent and turn back to God. God is the only thing that is protecting you from the empires that are surrounding you. So turn to God and trust in Him and He will protect you.” And they did for a time. And then they went back to chasing after the other gods and treating each other with injustice.
And in 586 BC the Babylonians sent their army and they marched against Jerusalem. They tore down the city walls, they burned down the temple palaces. They killed the princes. They murdered thousands and they carried away those who were left back to Babylon as slaves.
Now all of that is the first few chapters of the book of Isaiah. Then you get to words of hope - remember that the prophets warn and then they give hope - and Isaiah begins to say to them, that there will be deliverers who will come for them. “For unto us a child is born. Unto us a Son is given. And the government shall be upon His shoulders. And He shall reign with justice and righteousness forevermore.”
You get to chapter 12 and Isaiah is speaking to those who are going to be going into exile. He’s speaking 150 years before they’re taken away into exile. And God gives them two songs. Isaiah 12, you heard the entire chapter read a moment ago. Its only 6 verses long and there are two songs there. And God says to them, “In that day when I bring you back (they hadn’t even been taken away yet) in that day when I bring you back you will come to Jerusalem and you will sing again. And when you sing, this is what you will sing; “Surely God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid, for the Lord God is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation.” And then he goes on to say, “With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.”
This was a song of joy for deliverance yet to come. While the people were living in Babylon for 50 years they began to sing this song. They said, “God promised us before we ever arrived in this place that he would take us back home one day.” And so they sang these words; over and over again, trusting that God would deliver them even though they couldn’t see it yet.
And you know when we sing something happens. We move from knowing this with our head to knowing it with our hearts and it gives us peace and helps us experience joy in the midst of adversity. And that’s exactly what happened for them.
I really came to understand this in a fresh way this week. I have to admit I have been feeling a little less than joyful over the last few weeks. My mom was diagnosed with breast cancer. Going through the biopsy way back in October and having to wait until this Wednesday for surgery. And finally getting her home from the hospital on Friday. And I know she is going to be ok but the stress and worry from that has been rough.
And then to top that off I learned this week that my best friend from the time I was in kindergarten all the way through high school passed away this past Monday. His name was Charlie Priest. He was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer 27 days ago and in 27 days he was gone. We lived four doors from each other, went to the same schools, the same church, were almost inseparable in those early years. I had not seen him in way too many years. I stopped by the funeral home yesterday on my way out of town from visiting my mom. When I got back in my truck I must confess I wasn’t feeling very joyful.
I road down the interstate in silence for a good while, and then I did something I should have done sooner. I hooked up my iphone to my truck speakers and began to play my favorite Gaither Vocal band Christmas music. And I began to sing along with them.
Mary did you know that your baby boy would some day walk on water?
Mary did you know that your baby boy would save our sons and daughters?
Did you know that your baby boy has come to make you new?
This child that you've delivered, will soon deliver you.
Mary did you know that your baby boy would give sight to a blind man?
Mary did you know that your baby boy would calm a storm with his hand?
Did you know that your baby boy has walked where angels trod?
And when your kiss your little baby, you have kissed the face of God.
The blind will see, the deaf will hear, the dead will live again.
The lame will leap, the dumb will speak, the praises of the lamb
And something happened. Suddenly joy began to well up within me. And I sang, a song of joy for a deliverance yet to come.
I end with this. There’s something about singing that’s really important. The Bible is filled with songs. Mary singing her Magnificat when she found out she was with child even though she wasn’t yet married and could be put to death for it. What does she do? She sings!
It’s not by accident that the longest book in the Bible is a book of hymns; the Book of Psalms, 150 chapters long. So that the people when they were sad there were words in there for them to sing. And when they were happy there were words to sing. And when they were terrified there were words to sing so that their faith might move from their head to their hearts and they might feel peace and hope and even joy.
So Isaiah 12, the second of the hymns there, God tells them this, “Sing praises to the Lord, for he has done gloriously; let this be known in all the earth. Shout aloud and sing for joy, O royal Zion, for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel.”
I can’t read these words without thinking about Acts 16. You remember in Acts 16 Paul and Silas, the two great apostles in the early church, had been arrested in the town of Philippi. And they were beaten nearly to death. And their feet were shackled and they were thrown into the inner dungeon in the prison in Philippi. And do you remember while they were bloodied, bruised, and beaten what they began to do at midnight in that prison cell? What did they do? They began to sing! They began to sing songs of joy for deliverance yet to come.
And what I love about this season, Christmas; this is a season when we sing isn’t it? I mean it’s a season where we sing the Christmas carols. You have very few hymns from this hymnbook memorized, but I bet you have most all of the Christmas carols memorized. You know you turn on the secular radio stations and they’re playing our songs; every day 24 hours a day. You go into the shopping mall, they’re playing our music, and they’re playing our songs. And you know all of those that are specifically religious in nature; Hark the Herald Angels Sing or Joy to the World or Away in a Manger or the First Noel, they’re all when you look at them carefully songs of joy for deliverance yet to come.
And so when we sing them and we really think about them and we ponder them, the faith moves from something’s that’s here to something that’s here and regardless whether you’re facing adversity and pain or at the top of your game you begin to find joy in singing the carols.
I do want to tell you the story of the first carol. You actually have this memorized too; as it was told in the King James Bible. The very first carol was composed by the angels. And the story goes something like this: “At that time there were shepherds keeping watch over their flocks by night. And the angel of the Lord appeared to them and the glory of the Lord shown round about them and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of (what?) great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”
This was the first carol, sung by the angels announcing the birth of a Savior, a song of joy for who would bring a deliverance yet to come.
I want to ask you – this is the final invitation. You’ve heard the modes of joy in the midst of adversity. This is the actionable plan for you. You know the shepherds wouldn’t have celebrated and had that joy had the angel not come and told them that there was a Christ who was born.
The word angel in Greek is a complicated word, its angel; angelos. And it means messenger. It doesn’t mean winged creature dressed in white. It means messenger. Anybody could be a messenger. You know people in your sphere of influence who are in that season where there’s darkness. You do. You know somebody who’s out of work. You know somebody who’s lost a loved one this year. You know somebody who’s just in a funk. And those people need to know that there is joy. They need to sing.
But you know your friends who don’t go to church, you know what they do on Christmas Eve? They have dinner on Christmas Eve. They go to bed excited about waiting to see what Santa Clause is going to bring in the morning. They wake up. They open their presents and empty their stockings. They have turkey. And that’s it. That’s Christmas. And they never got to sing. And they never knew the joy.
And you know the only way those folks are going to get to sing this Christmas is if you invite them. Is if you are an angel of the Lord going to them to share with them the good news of great joy. And you don’t even have to tell them the good news. All you have to do is say, “Would you come to church with me on Christmas Eve? We’re going to sing Christmas carols and tell the story from the gospel of Luke. And at the end of the service it’s really cool. We have candles and everybody gets a candle and we pass the candlelight through the room and we sing Silent Night and we end the service by singing…What do we sing every year at the end of the service? Joy to the World. Same song every year. And you know what? Because you ask them they just might say, “Yes.”
So here’s my challenge to you. Think about somebody that needs joy this year; somebody that you could bless and offer joy to. And I want you to pray about who that person is who needs joy this year who doesn’t have a church family. And then I’d like for you to stop by and see them at their cubicle or in the driveway and say, “Hey I just wanted to see if you’d come with me.” Why? So that the people walking in darkness might see a great light. So for whom will you be the messenger of the Lord?
And you know when you do that, you find joy!
Joy is a byproduct of serving others and seeking to bless them and give them joy.
Joy is a byproduct of looking at your suffering as an opportunity for God to do something great.
Joy is a byproduct of trusting God in the midst of adversity.
And my hope and prayer this year is that you might experience joy.
God how grateful we are for the joy that you bring joy into our lives through Jesus Christ who is Emmanuel, God with us who allows us to know that You never leave us or forsake us.
Now if you’re sitting here this morning id invite you to just pray quietly under your breath this prayer. If you’re in a place where you say, “I need joy. I really need joy.” Would you simply say this quietly under your breath? Say these words:
“God I need joy. I trust you with my pain and suffering. Do something good with it. Help me be a blessing to others. And help me to sing songs of joy for deliverance yet to come.”
Lord heal these your people gathered here this morning. Bless them with joy. Help them to find the joy they are yearning for. In your Holy name. Amen.